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The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in the

Optical Spectrum


Mike Klein: I think we live in an exciting time, because I guess I believe that SETI started some several thousand years ago, when people contemplated the sky. I think we have to have this patience we discussed on earlier, and I think we also have to evolve. It's really great to being able to sit back and speculate about what might be the best possible way to do it - you can argue about it all day long, and it's good and healthy to do that. But once you go to build the equipment, you've got to put money on the table and you've got to build something, and you've got to make a lot of limitations because you can't build something for everybody. And in that process you try to go along and do the best you can at the time you are doing it and try to get something started, and that's how, I think, we got started on the microwave part of the spectrum. I think that it is very important for us to have discussions like this because I think the next phases - Phase SETI II, SETI III, SETI IV, may well take us one hell of a long time to make this discovery, cause I don't think it's going to be that easy - I don't know, I'd love to have it happen in my lifetime, but who knows? But I think we are continuing this quest that we have been speculating about for thousands of years - we've finally gotten started doing some experiments, let's keep trying to develop new and better experiments as we go along, and who knows when the detection will be made.

But some day, it will be made and somehow, this kind of activity we are having now will be one stepping-stone along the way - I hope it is the last stepping-stone, but maybe it isn't. Maybe there will others to follow, so that they will continue to evolve in our thinking, and don't get too wrapped up with arguing about what's exactly the best possible way to do it. Because no matter what we think the best possible way is today, we are probably wrong - we'll change our minds in ten or twenty years.

Charles Townes: Barney?

Barney Oliver: I think the audience has heard enough from me by now, let me say that I don't think I could put the case for the big, warm fuzzy photon any better then Kent Cullers has. [laughter]

Charles Townes: Now let's open it up to discussion of these last remarks, or anything else.

Floor: In the context of what we are doing here today that we are searching for intelligence - extraterrestrially, and from philosophical point of view, even though I am a scientist, we really need to investigate or at least examine what our motivations are to look for intelligence off this planet versus looking for the native intelligence that we have internally, and respond to the quest that's there.

I take exception to the expenditure of funds for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, not from a theoretical point of view, but from a humanitarian point of view. When there are many, many intelligent beings that are on this planet that are suffering, that if any of us were suffering to that degree, we would think it would be ridiculous to expend the kind of money we are talking about in the direction that we are expending it. So, I think we all need to be cognizant of tremendous suffering that's going on on this planet, and question whether there is any intelligence on this planet, based on that cognizance.

Charles Townes: Other comments?

Barney Oliver: Charlie, let me respond to that a little bit. There are two comments he is making there. I have to respond to the one about the amount being expended on SETI, and I want to emphasize how trivial that amount is. Even if it were orders of magnitude more than it is, it is still a small amount. I have likened it to throwing coins in a wishing well, I mean we do that without thinking about it, and this is about the same amount of money we are talking about, about a nickel a year - a dime a year for the taxpayer. So, don't get upset about that.

Charles Townes: Other comments?

Floor: I've got a simple-minded question on the nature of the first communication. It just occurs to me and has probably occurred to all of you that it could be some sort of laser range-finder. For someone actually making a three-dimensional map of the universe if you like, for a road map perhaps, maybe to make sure we are included in that map we should be sorting out a retro-reflector of some kind. [laughter]

Monte Ross: Do want to write a proposal Jim?

Floor: I guess it's a question that I am not sure whether we can hope to understand other beings. The statement was made that the laws of physics are universal, hence the laws of chemistry, hence possibly the laws of biology. I guess as a physical scientist I would agree that nature does obey some sort of rationality, but the laws of physics as we have them today, as we have ever had them and as we can ever hope to have them, are approximations. We can never know the final truth about nature, I mean I am not sure I understand what that phrase means in any case. What I am coming round to saying is that the laws of physics as we have them today are the result of centuries of intellectual evolution, starting from a particular point and modulated by particular circumstances that surround us. It is not a priori obvious to me, that a totally alien civilization would even think about physics in the way that we do. Would they indeed speak of electrons. I horrify my students by telling them that I regard an electron as being a syndrome - a collection of symptoms.

Now that's a fairly heretical view for western physicists, but it seams to me that they may be discoursing in terms that are simply incomprehensible to us. While I would certainly go along with the defense of looking for extraterrestrial signals - think it would have a profound impact to know that we are not alone - what we could hope to learn from them I am not at all certain.


Copyright , 1993, SPIE

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